This is a guest contribution from Jason Gracia.
As I write these words, dedicated men and women struggle to grow their blogs and they don’t have a clue as to the cause. Could it be effort? Could it be talent?
Could it be that just one more course is needed?
Could it be that I’m not good enough?
Poisonous thoughts like these swirl with enough force to permanently shatter one’s confidence. It happens every day–and it’s completely unnecessary.
The reason is waiting at the end of a short trip down nightmare lane…
Common Nightmare with a Twist
I had a nightmare. No running for my life, no free falling. Worse. I was in school. And the biggest test of the year was days away.
Like the good student my parents thought I was, I studied around the clock, doing everything possible to prepare and pass; a little montage of libraries and study groups played in my dream. On the day of the test I felt confident. I arrived early, reviewed my notes, and took my seat in the exam room. Then it happened. The dream became a nightmare.
My favorite teacher walked across the front of the room. But…that wasn’t the right teacher…I studied for my least favorite teacher’s class. Chest began to thump. Hands got sweaty. An F was on its way.
I studied the wrong subject.
I felt that odd combination of feelings when you wake from a school dream, stressed, then confused, then relieved. Ahh, but here’s the rub: Thousands of bloggers are living this nightmare with no sign of relief in site. They’ve picked the wrong subject, and no amount of study or preparation can save them.
The First Step No One Takes
All topics are not created equal. It’s hard to remember that when we’re surrounded by experts who tell us with a smile that finding our thing is as simple as recalling childhood dreams + having the courage to act on them. I can’t really blame them. Who wants to tell someone their idea won’t work?
Not because I fancy crushing dreams, but because facing reality will drastically increase your chances for eventual success. I’m like Mr. Wonderful on Shark Tank–it’s my job to save you from bad ideas so you can discover and chase the good ones.
If you’re struggling to grow your blog, your topic–not you–may be the problem.
So before any tips on traffic or conversion or content can do you any good, we must start at the beginning, the very beginning. We must start with the heart and soul of your blog.
Prep Work: Take Inventory
The first step to discovering a topic designed for success is to do a personal inventory; we have to uncover every possible subject that you could write about. To kickstart the process, consider the following questions. On second thought, let’s actually make progress today, shall we? Instead of considering, I want you to put pen to paper and answer the ten questions below. (You can also use Excel on a PC or Numbers on a Mac.)
What are you naturally good at? What has always come easy to you? What do other people have to think hard on or struggle with that, for whatever reason, comes naturally to you?
What do you get lost in? I first read about this concept in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow. Then I experienced it. I lost hours one night steeped in web design. I blinked and a hour whipped by. The same thing has happened ever since, which is why design has come to play such a large role in my life. What topic steals away your hours?
What do you love to learn about? This is one of my favorite questions because it replaces an issue that can feel utterly subjective with a plain and simple answer you can point to. You don’t have to mentally work through anything; you simply have to review what has already been done. What books are on your shelves? What blogs do you find yourself reading? What podcasts can you not get enough of? What television special have instantly captured your attention?
What have you always wanted to learn about? One of my favorite authors, William Zinsser, would often talk about writing books as a way to learn about a particular subject. He didn’t approach a new topic already having outlined the talking points. Instead, he chose a topic that fascinated him and then dove into the research. Taking Zinsser’s lead, what subject would you love to research?
What have you been through? The writing that touches our hearts is the writing that is real, which is why the adage to write what you know has been repeated to every hopeful author for thousands of years. By writing about what you’ve personally been through, your thoughts and feelings and experiences put down in words will carry incomparable strength.
What results have you produced in your life? Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, what have you done? You can succeed writing from the perspective of an observer or of the curious newcomer, but by far the most successful bloggers write about subjects in which they’ve personally generated positive results: an investment blog written by a successful investor, a parenting blog written by a mother of five, a business blog written by a successful entrepreneur. Thinking back over your life, what results have you achieved?
What themes consistently show up in your life? Though we don’t often realize it at the time, our lives follow patterns. What seems random, when viewed from a distance, is often linked by commonalities. Considering your hobbies, friends, jobs, and the rest of the pockets of your life, what themes show up again and again?
What do people compliment you on? What do you do or say that other people notice and applaud? It can be hard to recognize our own strengths. Recalling what others see in us is an effective way to bypass our tendency to downplay our talents and shed light on areas of ability.
What do your friends and family come to you for? One of my good friends is the king of home improvement. I constantly go to him for advice, as do a dozen others. This is clearly a topic he knows better than most. Like many of the questions, this is another example of taking an objective approach to uncovering your value. You don’t have to think your way to the answer. You only have to think your way to the past.
What do people pay you for? This takes the last question one step further. Not only does it point to areas in which you are asked for help or advice, but it pinpoints topics in which you’re so valuable that people hand over money for the chance to tap into your know-how. Do friends or family or co-workers or colleagues pay you–or offer to pay you–to do something for them?
You now have an inventory of possible blog topics. From here it’s a process of strategic narrowing. We’re going to pass your list through three filters, each one designed to help you get closer and closer to the handful of topics–or the single topic–that gives you the best chance of success. It begins with the most important, but most often ignored, consideration: the market.
Stage One: Narrow by Marketability
As much as we’d like to push the truth into a cramped broom closet and slam the door shut, we don’t get to decide if a particular topic is a winner. We can infuse everything we do with our personality and pour our passion into every project, but in the end it’s the market that determines what wins and what loses.
Obvious, right? I thought so too. Sadly, that didn’t stop me from chasing topics or creating products no one wanted. I lost time and money and confidence because I fell into the trap nearly all of us fall into: I fell in love with my own ideas.
It’s natural. We’re human and we’re driven so strongly by emotion. Our ideas are our babies, so it only makes sense that it’s nearly impossible to don the hat of logic and give them the axe they may deserve. In turn we hold tightly to things we should let loose, ensuring an uphill battle.
Not this time. I’m here to serve as your logic guide. The ideas you uncovered above are fantastic, especially that one about the horses. Spot on. But our agreement isn’t enough. The market at large has to agree.
No matter the subject, no matter the angle, you have to solve a real problem or cater to a real desire; people have to want what you have to offer. No amount of marketing or ad dollars, for example, will take dialup modems to the top and, likewise, no amount of hustle or chutzpah will take a your unwanted idea to the top.
Let’s figure out which of your ideas is wanted. For each of your ideas above, filter them with the questions below.
1. Are people actively looking for the topic?
Whether you’re hoping to find a good quinoa recipe, directions to your cousin’s favorite diner, or the popularity of a potential blog topic, Google is always a good place to start. If you’re an AdWords user, you can turn to their keyword tool to discover search traffic for the topics you’re considering. If you’re not an AdWords user, no fear! There are many good alternatives, including WordTracker and WordStream.
After taking a look at search traffic you can digitally put your ear to the ground: are people asking about your topic on sites, blogs, forums, or social platforms? Do you read comments in which people are eager to learn more about the subject you’re considering? Forum posts in which people are struggling with the problems you’re thinking about solving?
2. Are passionate and active communities built around the topic?
The question of whether running is a popular topic can be quickly answered with a short trip to the magazine section of Barnes & Noble. The same can be said of home improvement and YouTube, content marketing and blogs, teen angst and Instagram. Popular topics have thriving communities built around them, places where people can gather to share stories, tips, worries, frustrations, hope. Yours should be no different.
As you can see below, a quick search on Facebook for “playing guitar” returns a page with 1.6 million likes. Pretty strong indication of interest if you ask me. (Want to learn more about finding, joining, and engaging in Facebook groups? Visit here.)
Can you easily find sites, blogs, forums, groups, or social media destinations that cater to your topic? Are they alive and well, growing and evolving? How about offline? Are there magazines, journals, conferences, summits, workshops, or gathering dedicated to your potential subject?
Are other bloggers successfully serving the market?
If people are looking for your topic–and they’ve grouped together with others like them–the final question is whether or not other bloggers or experts are successfully serving them–are people already doing what you want to do? “Isn’t that a bad thing,” says the rookie. “Don’t I want as little competition as possible?” Sorry to say, rook, the truth is actually the opposite.
A market without competition is a market on its way out. You need to see other people thriving in your potential area because it proves the concept. It’s a clear sign that people are interested. Signs can include popular blogs, profitable products, bestselling books, or recurring ads (if you see the same types of ads over time, you know they’re making money). From here on out remember: competition has never been a sweeter sight to see.
Unlike the first list of questions, this one is going to take time and effort to get through. You have dig. This is where people nod and do nothing. I used to be one of them (still am in many instances). But I can promise you, success is on the other side of effort. If you want a topic that is predestined to succeed, you have to do the prep work to put the right steps in place. Sure, you can get lucky, but why rely on luck when you can do a little work and rely on fact?
You now have a list of topics that is not only within your realm of possibility but also within the realm of marketability. You could make your choice among the narrowed list and charge ahead, but there’s a chance you may still pick an idea that will leave you unsuccessful or unfulfilled. We can’t have that, and so we continue…
Stage Two: Narrow by Ability
The next series of questions gets to the heart of your ability. We feel joy and satisfaction doing those things we do best; the top bloggers didn’t merely choose the right markets–they’ve got the skills to match. At this point your list includes a range of topics, but it’s unlikely that you’re exactly equal in them all. Pinpoint the ones you excel in and you’re that much more likely to thrive.
What can you do better than 10,000 other people? First, this is not my question. I lifted it from an application Jeff Goins offered to future hires. But it’s so good! It strikes to the heart of the matter in an unusual and mentally-stimulating way. Second, what’s your answer? Looking at your list of possible topics, in which are you one of the best? Not the absolute best–because you can be very successful as the 67th best food blogger–but incredibly good?
Where do you produce the best results? Looking back over your past experiences, in which topics have you generated impressive results? This is another one of those questions I love because it takes the foggy and makes it concrete. No need to guess, no need to face indecision: look objectively at your past and pinpoint the subjects in which you produced something great.
Where can you generate the most value for others? This is similar the question above, but gives it the twist of value to help pinpoint your best subjects. Looking at your inventory, where do you feel you can be of best service? You may be equally good at potty training collies and helping teens get into college. Both topics deliver value, but I think you’d agree that one delivers more value than the other. (Dogs have to be potty trained after all.)
What would your friends say? We’re often terribly misinformed about ourselves. We’re convinced that we’re underqualified for some things and overqualified for others when the truth is just the opposite. The people who know us best, however, aren’t so easily fooled by this delusion. So ask them where you shine. An honest friend or two may be the difference between a winning topic and one that’s dead on arrival.
Let’s review. You started with a complete inventory of every possible blog topic. We then narrowed that list down to subjects that have an eager market ready and waiting to hear from you. But we weren’t done yet. After marketability, we turned to personal ability to pinpoint the topics at which you were the best.
Topics that have a market and rest snugly in your wheelhouse are likely to succeed, but I think we can do better than likely. I think we can narrow your choices down just one more time to shine a light on the topic you were meant to tackle.
Stage Three: Narrow by Passion
First things first, I’m not talking about finding your bliss or fulfilling your life purpose. Those are more than worthy pursuits (although the whole “life passion” industry has led to a lot of people wishing and waiting for their one thing to fall into their laps), but what I’m talking about is passion for the work. I’m talking about what you love to do.
There’s a foundational principle of success that says love for the work is what carries you through the hard times, missteps, failures, and droughts of progress. If you’re only in something for, say, the money, your motivation will dwindle and die when it doesn’t come overnight. But if the work itself sets you on fire? That motivation will never die.
With this in mind, I want you to take a look at your list of remaining topics and answer three more questions.
What do you love most? A bit obvious, but it’s important to ask nonetheless–out of your remaining topics, which do you absolutely love? Which speak to your heart and soul and feel right, feel connected to who you are and who you hope to be? Which ideas set you on fire?
What would you do for free? Your rich, quirky uncle suddenly passes away and leaves you enough money to live happily ever after. Which topics on your list would you still chase? What would you do free of charge for the foreseeable future?
What would your friends say? You knew it would be back! Friends and family see things in us we can’t see ourselves. We’re too close to it all, too involved. With a little distance and a different perspective, the people in our lives can open our eyes to answers we never thought we’d find. So go to the ones who know you best and ask them–what do you think I’m most passionate about?
1% of the people who read this article will sit down, grab a pen and a sheet of paper, and write out their answers. They’ll struggle for a while, but bit by bit they’ll write the words that will eventually lead to a topic, which will eventually lead to a blog, which will eventually lead to success. They’ll do the work and get the results.
The other 99% will agree with the notion of choosing a topic designed for results. Then they’ll move right on to the next article, or email, or podcast, continuing their quest for the answer to all their problems. They’ll never realize progress and success were always in front of them; they simply had to stop searching and start working. 1% will take action and win while 99% will wish and wait.
The question is…which side are you on?
Jason Gracia is the author of Shifting the Balance and founder of The Expert Agency, where he helps experts turn their knowledge and know-how into successful online businesses. For a copy of Jason’s free guide, The Expert Handbook, visit www.theexpertagency.com/
Further Reading: Thinking about creating a blog? Check out our 5 step guide to starting a blog.